Los Angeles County
MAJOR FREDERICK RUSSELL BURNHAM
Representing the seventh generation of frontiersmen in direct line, Major Frederick Russell Burnham has added fame to the name of Burnham through his many years of life on various frontiers and through his many thrilling and interesting experiences which we find foreign to the lives of most men of today. He is now a successful oil operator with offices in the Union Oil Building in Los Angeles. Born on an Indian reservation in Blue Earth County, Minnesota, on May 11, 1861, he is a son of Rev. Edwin O. and Rebecca (Russell) Burnham. Rev. E. O. Burnham was born in Kentucky of New England ancestry and moved to an Indian reservation in Blue Earth County, Minnesota. There the family went through the Indian raids, in one of which Mrs. Burnham had to hide her baby, the subject of this sketch, then two years old, in a shock of newly cut corn in order to save their lives. She safely made her escape to safety after telling her baby to be perfectly quiet and wait till she came back for him. She returned the following day with some men for protection. They found the home burned and all livestock stolen but found the boy safe where his mother had left him. As a result of these raids there were thirty-eight Indian chieftains hanged at Mankato, Minnesota. The many crimes perpetrated by the Red men were bad enough but those were easily offset by the crimes committed against them by white men. On account of an injury sustained by Rev. Burnham while building a house, he came to California for his health, settling in southern California in 1871, with his wife and two children. He died in Los Angeles in 1873.
The early education of Frederick R. Burnham was received in the common schools in Minnesota but his association with the Indians taught him more than could be learned from any book and was of much value to him in the years he spent roaming over the world. He went to the Middle West, making his home with an uncle and attending school a short time while there. At the age of fifteen he went to Arizona and there was thrown in contact with the early scouts and men of the frontier operating in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Missouri. He became interested in mining in the Mogollon Mountains, learning all branches of the business, making some money but spending it. He roamed all over Arizona, getting into and out of many tight places because of his policy of helping the weaker fellow. Each new experience only added to his fund of knowledge of the frontier life and made him more adept in handling difficult situations that confronted him in later years. He was a guard for Wells Fargo treasure out of Globe, Arizona, for a time. In 1882 when the Apache war broke out he became a scout under such men as Al Sieber, Archie McIntosh and Fred Sterling and rendered gallant service. He then mined for a time and made money but spent it all.
In 1893 he offered his services to Cecil Rhodes when the Matabele war broke out in South Africa and was accepted. Taking his wife and child with him, he left for South Africa. He gradually became accustomed to that wild country and endured many hardships in trekking with his burros and buckboard through wild terrain, killing game for food and practically living off what the country afforded. He met Paul Kruger and other men of note in that country and finally fell in with Doctor Jameson as the different companies formed to go to the front in the Matabele war, where every man distinguished himself. Mr. Burnham became a dispatch bearer, using all his early American Indian knowledge in pulling him through many tight places and owes his life to that knowledge of Indian warfare. He also took part in the Bulwayo campaign. After the war, came an era of mining with John Hays Hammond. Leaving Africa in 1897, Major Burnham landed in Seattle, Washington, bound for the Klondike, Alaska, gold fields. He made the trip over the Skagway Pass, Dawson and many inland trips.
While in Africa, Major Burnham was presented with a campaign medal by the British government for valiant service; also with two companions he was given three hundred square miles of land in Rhodesia. In the granite ruins of Rhodesia, he discovered buried treasure, consisting of gold ornaments dating back before the Christian era. He was chosen leader of an expedition to explore Barotseland, preparatory to the building of the railroad from the Cape to Cairo. As a member of the staff of Sir Frederick Carrington he participated in the second Matabele war. At this time he was commissioned to capture or kill the Matabele God, M’Limo, and succeeded in entering his cave and killing him.
In January, 1900, at the request of Lord Roberts, Major Burnham went back to South Africa for service in the Boer War and was made chief of scouts of the British Army in the field. On June 2, 1901, while on scouting duty, he destroyed the enemy’s base, was wounded and invalided home. For his gallant services in that campaign he was commissioned a major in the British Army, presented with a large sum of money, and received a personal letter of thanks from Lord Roberts. On his arrival in England, Major Burnham was commended by Queen Victoria, spending one night at Osborne House, and was created a member of the Distinguished Service Order by King Edward, who also presented him with the South African Medal, the five bars and cross of the D. S. O. In 1902 he made surveys of the Volta River in West Africa and explored parts of French Nigeria, the hinterland of the Gold Coast colony, taking an active part in the native troubles of that time. During 1903-04 he commanded an exploring expedition of magnitude from Lake Rudolph to German East Africa, covering a vast region along the Congo basin and head of the Nile. He discovered a lake forty-nine miles square, composed almost entirely of pure carbonate of soda of unknown depth. He made important contributions to archaeological science by discovering that the Maya civilization extended into the Yaqui country, as shown by stone carvings and writings which he found in 1908. With John Hays Hammond he was engaged in the task of diverting the Yaqui River through a system of canals into a delta containing seven hundred square miles of land. Volumes could be written were the details of the experiences of Major Burnham put into print. We have merely indicated what a life of adventure has been his ever since early years.
In 1884 Major Burnham was united in marriage with Blanche Blick, of Clinton, Iowa, but who had come to Pasadena, California. Later Mr. and Mrs. Burnham were joined by his mother and a younger brother on their orange grove, where Major Burnham had settled for a time. But he soon tired of the humdrum life of an orchardist and embarked upon a career of adventure. Of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Burnham, three children were born: Roderick D., Nada and Bruce, but of these, Roderick is the only one living. Major Burnham is now manager for the Exploration Company, an oil corporation, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, joint developer with the Shell Oil Company and the Union Oil Company of California of the Dominguez field in Los Angeles County. He has offices in the Union Oil Building in Los Angeles.
Major Burnham makes his home at 3135 Durand Drive, Hollywood. He is a Republican in politics but never has sought office, although he served as a member of the state board of park commissioners under the appointment of Governor Young in 1927. He is a member of the Boone and Crockett Clubs of New York City, and of the Sunset Club in Los Angeles. He views life from the broad outlook of one who has traveled extensively and whose life has been filled with adventure, fraught with hardships and danger. One subject upon which he feels strongly is the neglected debt of gratitude we owe the American Indian because for one thing, he introduced to us nearly all the food stuffs and medicine bases we now use. Major Burnham advocates that we accord these first Americans full equality with ourselves. He is a man of unassuming nature, but brings to bear the poise, sagacity and foresight of the man of affairs. He inherited the sharpness of eye and muscular strength of his ancestors and at the age of seventy-two can handle a nine pound rifle with ease and dexterity, using either right or left hand. Major Burnham is the author of “Scouting on Two Continents,” a book which is interesting and informative and has been translated into several languages.
Transcribed by V. Gerald Iaquinta.
Source: California of the South Vol. IV, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 425-429, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis. 1933.
© 2012 V. Gerald Iaquinta.